On Faith: On not being religious but spiritual

In my work in the interfaith community over nearly 30 years, whenever the subject of religion has come up, I've often heard this comment: "Well, I am not religious, but I am spiritual."

My immediate reaction was to wonder what the speaker meant by that. Was he or she raised in a religious environment but still considered themselves a "good person" after having rejected the teachings of their family's faith? Was that person rejecting "organized religion" generally? Did he or she see some who claimed to be religious as being hypocritical?

It is my fear that they are using the words "being spiritual" as a way to avoid making commitments of time or money to serving in the community.

I know some who condemn "organized religion" because of historical incidences that have offended them. The Crusades, Jonestown, the Branch Davidians of Waco, and the events of 9/11 are some examples.

However, we have suffered negative experiences in families, corporations, and government, and we don't reject those concepts out of hand. Belonging to a religious community provides a lifetime of hope for many who suffer emotionally, spiritually or physically, and a lifetime of service opportunities for many who feel their lives are "on track."

The connection with a religious community is an exercise in humility — an admission that you don't know all there is to know about the divine, but that you are willing to learn from others and expand your spiritual awareness.

Just as small advances in mechanical understanding over the centuries have combined to make it possible to build vehicles that can carry hundreds of passengers to distant destinations, our individual spiritual experiences, combined with those with whom we associate, can enhance our spiritual growth.

Isolating ourselves from others who have like goals will lessen our opportunity for improvement. When one associates with an organized religion, one generally makes commitments of time, energy and finances to enhance the lives of those both inside and outside their community of believers.

According to sociologists of religion, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, most Americans have a religious affiliation, and the churches growing most rapidly are those that provide both moral structures, contact with the numinous, and commitments to not only follow the tenets of that faith, but to reach out to touch the lives of others.

Here in Orange County, we benefit from the contributions of organized religious communities in meeting the needs of our citizens. Examples such as Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Saint Joseph Hospital (Sisters of St. Joseph), rescue missions (conservative Christians), Lutheran Social Services, and many more, are blessings to our communities.

Our schools in Orange County have been supplemented by those sponsored by churches, synagogues, and mosques and their contribution to our youth is immeasurable. We recently celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and one of the things commemorated was the part that organized religions played in righting moral wrongs in America. As I visit many religious organizations, I am thrilled by the "outreach programs" that touch the lives of so many.

I observe the work done to serve others by organizations such as Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, Optimists, and see it as truly amazing. While it doesn't require any religious affiliation, these clubs demand significant commitment in regular attendance, time and finances.

But it is "organized". They are called "service clubs" because that is what they do!

I know so many who, because they have not associated with some religious or service organization, spend little time or money working for the betterment of our communities. I am asking every reader to evaluate what they are doing in the service of others.

I am a believer in the principle of tithing, and encourage tithing of both one's time and financial resources in the area of service. If participation in religion is not your thing, then become active in a service club, the OASIS Senior Center, CASA, which mentors young men who have no father figure in the home, Share Our Selves, which reaches out to the indigent or homeless, scouting or any of the many organizations whose very purpose is to help others.

Not only will it enhance our community, but it will give you a joy that will enrich your life.

THOMAS L. THORKELSON directs Interfaith Relations for the Orange County Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in Newport Beach.

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